Something even non-believers can believe in

This week: the secret of success, the value of writing, and the music of silence.


Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 can seem inevitable now; in reality it was a lucky shot, and this time the odds against him winning are stacked even higher. Biden has a big and consistent lead, much bigger than Clinton’s lead at this time in 2016. He is leading in the midwest states Clinton lost but it’s not clear he even needs them, because he’s doing well all over the map, even in Texas and Georgia. Trump is doing badly on what will probably be the core issue of the election, his management of the virus, and the economic collapse has at least neutralised what was his key electoral strength. Many still can’t believe Trump is likely to lose, because his victory last time came as such a shock, including to me (oh Jesus, that night). But while we should learn from our mistakes we shouldn’t over-learn from them, and I think he’s probably on his way. If so, will things then revert to normal? Will US politics become sane again? Will America revert to being a trusted global ally? You know what, I think quite possibly yes. I realise that sounds naive. The degeneration of America’s democracy predates Trump; global power continues to shift eastwards; populists everywhere continue to thrive. A Biden presidency won’t shift those longterm trends and Biden himself is not an inspirational figure. But don’t underestimate how cathartic it will be for the world if Trump goes, or just how much difference Biden can make simply by appointing grown-ups to key jobs, restoring basics of good governance, and not doing stupid shit. Never has the bar been set so low for an incoming president. Here in the UK, I underestimated how quickly a reasonably competent Labour leader would transform Labour’s chances of electoral recovery and how good it would feel just to have a functioning opposition again. I think that’s what a Biden presidency will feel like, multiplied.


This is an entertaining video of a Las Vegas magician explaining how he performs his signature card trick. The magician, Kostya Kimlat, is of the Penn & Teller school of anti-magic magic. When he shows you how it does it, it actually makes it more incredible, not less. The trick is that there is no trick, just an insane amount of hard work and honed technique, which at a certain point becomes indistinguishable from magic. He did have a clever idea, but it’s not an idea someone else couldn’t have come up with. Teller himself once remarked that magic is about spending more time on something than a reasonable person would do. I think that applies beyond card tricks. Whether in writing or business we put too much emphasis on having an truly original idea, ownable IP or a USP. Sometimes that’s the key to success, but other times you can take something other people might be doing and invest much more time and effort in it than any reasonable person would do. That becomes your USP. The inputs might be the same but the output is pure you.


My latest New Statesman column is on the value of armchair epidemiologists. I was sceptical about this blog from a non-expert when it went viral, as I was of Rory Stewart when he said this. But they were right - more right than Chris Whitty.


At the same time as the journalism industry is being hollowed out, the corporate world is starting to value writing more than ever (OK not much of a silver lining). The remarkable Collison brothers, who co-founded the online payments company Stripe, are ahead of the curve. Patrick Collison describes Stripe, half-jokingly, as “a celebration of the written word”. In this podcast interview, his brother John expands on the theme: “The returns to writing well are really high. We have always been shocked by the under-emphasis [other companies] place on crisp written communication.” He means in terms of both external marketing and internal communication. I couldn’t agree more, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?


  • The Oxford vaccine has had promising early results, as has Moderna. Fact: the leader of the Oxford team, Sarah Gilbert, is the mother of three triplets, now 21 years old and all studying biochemistry. That’s from this excellent Bloomberg profile. It’s interesting on the funding and manufacturing timeline. If investors had been just a little more confident in Gilbert’s team a little earlier on, the program would now be even further ahead of the curve than it is.

  • One of the uncertainties described in the above piece is the relative importance of generating antibodies vs T-cells, with the Oxford team is betting on T-cells. This week saw further evidence that they are right.

  • Stock markets have not, as yet, been as gloomy as the news. Nobody’s quite sure why. Maybe investors are inherently over-optimistic, maybe a new post-Covid cohort of amateur investors are skewing things, or maybe, as Saku Panditharatne argues, it’s because they are thinking longer-term. The big tech companies have not had their long-term plans significantly disrupted by the pandemic and indeed have been strengthened by it. Markets are also betting on companies like Tesla using innovation to create new revenue streams even if it’s hard to predict how. I guess one question is whether, even given this optimistic scenario, tech companies are going to create jobs at the scale we need them to in order to replace the ones lost.

  • It’s safe to go to the hairdresser (presuming they wear a mask).

  • I loved this 2008 Paris Review interview with Kazuo Ishiguro. Hugely interesting and funny too. If for nothing else, read it for his account of being a ‘grouse beater’ for the Queen Mother at Balmoral.

  • Short and profound reflection on African-American patriotism from Henry Louis Gates Jr., from 1991 (others in the thread, do explore).

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This is a fantastic BBC radio documentary about John Cage, and specifically his most famous composition: 4’33”. In case you don’t know, it’s a work for piano, in three movements, all them silent. (I once owned a CD of it, by Wayne Marshall.) If you’ve ever wondered WTF that’s all about, listen to this, it will help you understand it as a serious work of art. I learnt a lot - I didn’t know, for instance, that Yoko Ono, years before she met John Lennon, played a pivotal role in Cage’s artistic development.


On a recent edition of BBC R3’s Inside Music the violinist Thomas Gould talked about how he got obsessed by the song Alfie, by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, after performing on a tour with Bacharach (Alfie is Bacharach’s favourite of his own songs, which is saying something). Cilla Black’s version is best known but there are plenty of covers, and after extensive research, Gould found his favourite. It’s by Barbara Streisand. Just technically, it’s a wonder. She employs minimal vibrato (often used to cover up dodgy intonation which is why talent show singers use so much of it) and hits every note dead centre, so there’s this incredible purity to her tone. But also emotionally, the way she tells a story - you really feel she’s talking to someone, asking those enormous questions of Alfie, or you, or herself. As a chaser I give you Cilla Black and Paul McCartney’s demo of Step Inside Love, a song he wrote for her in 1967. They were mates from Cavern days and so when she asked him to write a theme tune for her TV show he took a break from Sergeant Pepper and did so. It’s a bossanova tune, influenced by Bacharach. Typical of McCartney at that time to say “Hey I fancy writing one of those…” and throw out something as catchy and as musically sophisticated as this. I like Cilla’s singing, more relaxed and intimate than her recorded version. Bonus snatch of George Martin at the end.

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